Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Hurt Locker ****

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty
Christian Camargo, Evangeline Lilly, David Morse
Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes

The notion of war always brings up intangible concepts of right & wrong, good & evil and, in the case of the American Iraq invasion, opposing political views.
But what of the people inside the battle? The soldiers for whom far is usually just a far away event. What happens to them when they suddenly find themselves in foreign lands, fighting people they can't even communicate with.
They have no time to sit down and analyze why what they're doing is wrong. They can't opt for peaceful views or no-violence policies because they might die if they do.
And no other film in recent history has made such keens observations on what it's like to be a soldier as Kathryn Bigelow's masterful "The Hurt Locker".
The film opens with a quote by New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges which states that "war is a drug".
Following this concept Bigelow throws us right into the action as members of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit try to deactivate a bomb in the middle of a Baghdad neighborhood.
The mission goes wrong and the leader is killed. Less than three minutes later we meet Sgt. William James (Renner) who comes as a replacement for the former unit leader.
Other members in his team include Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Mackie) and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Geraghty) who are in charge of covering James' perimeter while he works.
The movie then moves in vignettes-as opposed to following a story determined chronology-chronicling how many days are left for James in the unit.
Since there is no obvious leading point, the film's dramatic tension comes from within the untold stories of the characters, particularly the clashing tension between James and Sanborn who are extreme opposites.
James seems to get a rush out of his job and often jeopardizes the whole unit by taking avoidable risks. Sanborn on the other side reminds him "we're on a mission, my job is to protect you so we can go on other missions!".
It's fortunate that these characters are played extraordinarily by Mackie and Renner who anchor in the film, even stealing the spotlight from bigger stars (like Fiennes and Pearce who get limited roles) precisely by remaining completely grounded.
Renner has all the energy, and slight looks, of Daniel Craig; a tough, almost careless exterior tormented by everything he left behind in his home (a baby and wife played by Lilly).
He embodies the "drug is war" theme of the movie because he approaches every mission as if it resembled something like fun, imagine Slim Pickens in the "Dr. Strangelove" finale. He gets his "adrenaline fix", as a character tells him, by defying basic security measures and in his eyes we can see that he knows each time might very well be the last.
But besides the rough physique there is something moving about James; he befriends a young sales boy called Beckham (Christopher Sayegh), with whom he reveals a side of the paternal protectiveness he lacks with his fellow soldiers.
Or perhaps he's just looking for meaning to what he does, Renner is so effective you never know for sure what's inside his mind.
Mackie provides a remarkable stability; that he respects the rules doesn't mean he wish he didn't, when he threatens James by saying "I can figure out a redneck piece of trailer trash like you", it's impossible not to be overcome by his tranquil wrath.
Geraghty doesn't get much screen time but in his scenes he plays out the unsure soldier wonderfully. Pearce, Fiennes and particularly Morse shine in their bit roles.
Still this isn't a buddy/war movie since the characters never really achieve that movie-ness we're used to expect from the genre.
Bigelow does the whole dislike-disdain-bonding-reserved admiration thing without bells and whistles; these men know they might never get to see each other again every time they're on an assignment.
The entire film exudes this suspense element giving Bigelow an opportunity to build some magnificent setpieces aided by the marvelous camera of Barry Ackroyd who has a great eye for detail.
The editing, sound and visual design of the film understand what makes action sequences fascinating; the camera lingers, making us wish we could turn our eyes away and make us feel like we're right in the middle of the action.
Bigelow's explosions aren't cut in two second long edits, they force us to watch every little moment. One of the movie's most powerful scenes has James trying to remove a device from a suicide bomber, with two minutes before the timer goes off, the movie reaches levels of adrenaline Hollywood usually reserves for mediocre summer blockbusters.
Contrary to what one might expect Bigelow's movie, or Mark Boal's screenplay perhaps, is completely apolitical. Watching the film this neutrality comes off as looking slightly coward, but it's only after it has ended that it all makes sense.
Bigelow is not interested in taking sides, which is why her movie might appeal to war dissenters, who see the inhumanity in this hell, and also to supporters who will only see the patriotic way in which the soldiers do their job (might even serve as a recruiting method for those who detect the excitement of combat in it).
The director of course won't care what side the viewer is, her film is a historical document which like the greatest art is left to be deciphered by the beholder.

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